From dairy to solar: This Maine farm makes space for renewable energy

By Robie Feinbery for Maine Public

Bussie York helps run a Farmington farm that’s been in his family for decades. The business now has 300,000 solar panels on it, which is thought to the biggest solar array in New England. (Robbie Feinberg/Maine Public)

On a bitter, windy morning, farmer Bussie York walks through a former cow pasture — just one small part of the farm along the Sandy River in Farmington that’s been in his family for about 70 years.

Over the years, the family has grown sugar beets, turnips and soybeans, among other crops. But today, much of the land is covered in metallic blue panels.

“I don’t know how many panels there are,” York said. “But there are a lot of them, that’s for sure.”

There are 300,000 solar panels, to be exact — a total of 76.5 megawatts, believed to be the largest solar array in New England.

The project came to fruition in the midst of a major shift in the dairy industry. York said that for years, the farm’s primary export was milk. But that ended in 2018, when Horizon Organic discontinued its contract with the farm. Without a major buyer, York had to downsize the herd from 100 cows to just 15.

“And so it just came to the point where we had to look for something viable enough to either keep the farm going, or to make enough profit for us to retire on. Because that’s the only thing we have,” he said.

York said the options were limited, as part of the farm didn’t have the right soil quality for harvesting certain plants. So he accepted an offer from a solar developer to set up panels on about 100 acres of farmland and 200 acres of woodland.

The lease was part of a massive project, developed with several colleges — including Brunswick’s Bowdoin College and four others in Massachusetts, who committed to purchasing about a third of the electricity to help meet their carbon goals.

Electricians Bryan Driscoll and Zach Newton review a wiring schematic while installing solar panels at the 38-acre BNRG/Dirigo solar farm, Jan. 14, 2021, in Oxford, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)

Some locals questioned the size of the project and its potential effect on nearby property values. But York saw it as a source of tax revenue for the town — and green power for the state.

“And it just seemed to fit into the plans for renewable energy for the state of Maine,” York said. “And they’ve been talking for a considerable amount of time — either its windmills, or it’s damming up the rivers, water power. Or it’s solar. And we just chose solar as being the least offensive to the area.”

The project went online last fall, but it’s become emblematic of a growing tension between Maine’s booming solar industry, and effort to preserve an already limited supply of productive farmland.

Ellen Griswold, the policy and research director for Maine Farmland Trust, says when Maine passed solar incentives under the “net energy billing” program in 2019, farmers began getting calls from all over the country with offers to host solar developments.

“We started getting calls from a lot of different farmers that we work with, who themselves were being contacted by, depending on the farmer, sometimes 10 to 15 different developers,” Griswold said.

Griswold said that with proper planning, solar can be a good option to help farmers diversify their income streams and help meet the state’s climate goals. But she worries about the unintended consequences of losing productive farmland across Maine, which could threaten the state’s future food security.

“I mean, we’ve all experienced the supply chain disruptions that have resulted with the pandemic,” Griswold said. “And areas where we currently import a lot of our food from are experiencing greater climate impacts than we are, in Maine. And so making sure we have a robust local and regional food system is really important.”

Graph of solar generation installed in Maine. (Courtesy Governor’s Energy Office)

A stakeholder group was formed last year to examine the issue. Its recommendations, released last month, include a call for the state to create a database of where solar projects are being developed; to provide more guidance to local towns as they deal with solar permitting; and to create “dual-use” pilot projects that would allow for both solar generation and agriculture on the same plot of land.

Nancy McBrady, the bureau director for the Bureau of Agriculture, Food, and Rural Resources within the Maine Department of Agriculture, said farmers should carefully consider their options.

“We certainly want folks to go into conversations with their eyes wide open,” she said. “To ask a lot of questions. And to keep into consideration really important things, such as whether or not they would want to continue to farm in certain locations on their farmland. Where precisely will things be positioned? Could there be arrays put in less productive areas of their farms, so that they could continue to be productive and produce agricultural products?”

The Legislature could take up some of the group’s recommendations this spring. But in the meantime, several towns have already placed moratoriums on certain new solar developments. Some residents in Farmington called for a temporary halt last year, but town selectmen declined to pursue it.

And the array on Bussie York’s property appears to have the support of many locals. The local tech center is using the farm as a teaching tool in its engineering classes. And Farmington Town Manager Christian Waller said the project will generate more than $700,000 a year in additional tax revenue — a significant amount in a town with a budget of around $7 million.

“There are definitely economic benefits to the folks in the community, in the area. So far, I think it’s overall a win-win situation for everybody,” he said.

Sandy River Farm. (Robbie Feinberg/Maine Public)

York said he has mixed feelings about the solar boom. While he stands behind the benefits of the solar array on his own land, he says the state must take steps to protect farmland for the future.

“That’s why I say, where we have so much forest land and in the state of Maine, we can sacrifice some forest land,” York said. “But we really can’t sacrifice a lot of our open agricultural land, if we want to maintain agriculture in the state. We want to feed the people.”

In fact, York wants to expand agricultural uses near the solar array. He’s trying to get permission from developers to bring in sheep that would graze on the grass around the panels.

This story is part of the New England News Collaborative. It was originally published by Maine Public.